Are schools killing creativity?

It’s the most watched TED Talk of all time, with almost 36 million views.

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson took to the TED stage and gave an entertaining and impassioned case for creating an education system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity.

Sadly, a decade on, not much has changed. Indeed, if anything, it’s gotten worse. I worked part-time in a University for 18 months between 2014 and the beginning of this year, and it was rare for me to come across a group of students who were willing to ask questions and challenge the status quo. Too often I would walk into a room to be met by a sea of laptops, the students waiting for their lecturer to talk at them from PowerPoint slides, the laptops ready to capture all of the information that was imparted, so they could repeat it back and pass the exams.

They were taken aback when I told them to put the laptops away and pulled out my Flipchart paper, Sharpies and Post-It notes. Uncomfortable at first, they slowly got into it and by the end there was a real energy in the room. They loved it! But sadly, for many students, that’s not the norm.

The only place that happened to any extent was in the Art & Design School, where you would expect the students to be curious and to think more creatively. But even then….

These damning statistics, published by TESS in 2005, make for frightening reading:


So what do we do about this?

Well, clearly no-one in any position of influence has truly listened to Sir Ken’s words of warning. Our education system still rewards the correct answer and stigmatises failure. Children become frightened to be wrong.

On Saturday afternoon, I spoke to a room full of forensic scientists, including a group of students. I asked the students if they had ever worked with students from other disciplines, but no, they hadn’t. And that is part of the problem. But it’s by no means the root cause.

We need to create an education system that rewards the process, not just the outcome. Where students are encouraged to be creative, to be curious and to ask ‘why?’, and where giving a wrong answer isn’t seen as a failure.

We’ve had some interesting results at Dundee where we’ve brought students from different disciplines together to work on problems. Using design thinking methodology, which encourages the divergent thinking that we’ve seen is lacking in our students beyond the age of 13, our students have tackled problems in areas including law and healthcare this semester.

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Bringing together students from geography, design, law, and humanities, for example, and helping them to work on problems as a team – that’s when the magic happens. You see, when all we have are students from one discipline – like our forensic students have been used to – then no-one asks the crazy questions, or challenges the status quo. They make too many assumptions; they’re all thinking in the same way.

That’s all very interesting, but where do we go from here?

That’s the $64,000 question.

36,000,000 people have watched Sir Ken’s TED Talk, and yet nothing has happened to change this.

It was a rallying call that fell on deaf ears.

Our education system needs to change, at a fundamental level. Too many people have too many vested interests. League tables and KPIs, linked to recruitment and, of course, salaries and promotions. Unless we are prepared to break down the system, to disrupt it, then nothing will change.

Those forensic scientists I mentioned earlier? They were also addressed by Professors Sue Black and Niamh Nic Daeid, who are creating the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science in Dundee. A 10 year project, which aims to disrupt not only the world of forensic science, but also the way our entire judicial system works.

They will have some forensic scientists on their staff, but they’ll also have mathematicians, English literature graduates, bus drivers, designers and schoolchildren. The environment will also be unlike anything the forensic world has ever seen before. Because that’s the kind of thinking that’s needed to change things. To move things forward.

We can of course do nothing. But that would be letting our children down.

So here’s to the Crazy Ones. Let’s do this. Let’s make a difference.

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